Who’s Running the Washington Post, Anyway?

Apparently, whoever has the most Twitter followers.

Dave Weigel is, yet again, the subject of controversy, having created a social media firestorm after retweeting a tired joke and ultimately being suspended for a month from the Washington Post. Josh Barro sees this as part of a disturbing trend:

You may have noticed a bizarre trend at organizations whose staffs are full of younger liberals: Internal disputes aren’t kept internal anymore but are aired in public, on social media or in the press, with rampantly subordinate staff attacking their colleagues or decrying managerial decisions in full public view — and those actions apparently tolerated from the top.

In the most extreme cases, you get meltdowns like the one at the Dianne Morales campaign for mayor of New York, where staff went on strike to demand, among other things, that the campaign divert part of its budget away from campaigning into “community grocery giveaways.” But it’s especially a problem in the media, where so many employees have large social media followings they can use to put their employers on blast — and where those employers have (unwisely) cultivated a freewheeling social media culture where it’s common for reporters to comment on all sorts of matters unrelated to their coverage.

One instance of that unwise culture is what started this whole mess: Politics reporter Dave Weigel retweeting a tasteless joke about women.

Here it is:

I’m less sympathetic to Dave on this point than some other critics of the Post’s recent actions. This joke isn’t funny, and I get why it offends people. It also doesn’t serve a professional purpose. Not only should he not have retweeted this, he (like so many reporters at the Post) should tweet less in general, and Post management has a relevant interest in disciplining him for this tweet, even though the monthlong suspension they awarded him is excessive.

So . . . yeah.

Weigel is a 40-year-old man who went to an elite journalism school and has spent most of his career writing for prestige outlets in New York and DC. He knows that this kind of thing is going to create a backlash and, as Barro rightly notes, it reflects poorly on his employer.

That said, social media is, after all, social. Twitter, in particular, is often filled with snark and lame attempts at humor. Retweeting jokes isn’t really intended to serve a professional purpose but rather to amuse one’s followers and, perhaps indirectly, build a brand. And while any joke that has the phrase “every girl” is likely to be cringe, making fun of the opposite sex is a time-honored comedy staple. (It’s also not clear from the reporting I’ve seen what time of day/night or state of sobriety Weigel was in when he retweeted the joke.)

And other Post employees would have had plausible reason to raise objection to the tweet — to him directly, to his editor, or to human resources. But instead of using those channels, Post reporter Felicia Sonmez — who says she has “long considered Dave a good friend” — has gone on a days-long public diatribe about the retweet on Twitter, drawing massive attention to it and asking why it is “allowed” at the paper. I am literally talking about hundreds of tweets and retweets on the subject.

He’s not exaggerating. Tweeting about Dave Weigel—and defending tweeting about Dave Weigel—has apparently become her full-time job.

Weigel pulled down the retweet and apologized, but she has continued to pile on, even after the paper suspended him without pay for a month. It’s been a one-woman campaign — threads of dozens of tweets attacking Post management; doing name searches for herself and tweeting screenshots of the criticism she’s received for attacking her colleague in public; retweeting praise from random Twitter accounts along the lines of, “Credit to Felicia Sonmez for continuing to cover the story of the continued abuse she’s receiving over the Dave Weigel tweet. She has a lot more guts than I have.”

If this is her 15 minutes of fame, she might as well enjoy it, I guess.

She’s been especially mad at another colleague, features writer Jose A. Del Real, for having the temerity to describe her behavior as “clout chasing” and “toxic” and urge her to stop attacking colleagues so publicly. She wants to know why Post management isn’t doing something about him and his tweets.

It is, frankly, rather bizarre. I don’t understand why Post management is putting up with it. It’s certainly much more damaging to the paper’s brand than retweeting a lame joke. Of course, she’s ranting about her bosses, too, so they’re in a position where they look bad regardless.

I hate that I’ve written so many paragraphs about this. I hate that I know so much about this dispute. It’s so high school, and it ought not to be any of our business. These are all internal HR matters. But Sonmez is explicit: She wages these fights in public because management is more responsive to that than when employees complain privately. By giving her “good friend” Weigel such a long suspension and doing nothing to her, management is only encouraging her and other Post employees to put their colleagues on blast more, which she has indeed been doing.

Airing internal workplace disputes in public like this is not okay, even when you are right on the merits. My statement isn’t just obvious, it’s how almost all organizations work. If you think your coworker sucks, you don’t tweet about it. That’s unprofessional. If you disagree with management’s personnel decisions, you don’t decry them to the public. That’s insubordinate. Organizations full of people who are publicly at each other’s throats can’t be effective. Your workplace is not Fleetwood Mac.

That’s a good line.

And, yes, that’s absolutely right. I’ve had minor disagreements with employers, including my current one, over personnel and policy matters. It would simply never have occurred to me to take them public—whether to Twitter, OTB, or some other venue—while still working there. It’s unprofessional.

Del Real is right that Sonmez’s behavior is clout chasing and toxic, but it’s not his job to say so — that job falls to Post management. And just because Post management is weak and incompetent does not mean he gets to substitute his judgment for theirs, especially in a public forum. Similarly, though it displeases Sonmez that management does not always do anything about other reporters’ tweets she finds “problematic,” that doesn’t mean she gets to appeal the decision to the Twitter mob. You don’t run the paper; you don’t always get what you want.

The staff apparently needs a sharp reminder that you do not air your disputes with colleagues in public. You’re supposed to be a team: You keep disagreements internal, and if you find the management or strategy or editorial direction of the organization unacceptable, you leave and work somewhere else. But employees have seen for years at the Post (and The New York Times) that following those practices is optional, so it’s going to take a shock to the system — one that will involve more employee discipline and the departure of employees for whom the chaos culture is an important value. They need to know that if they want to be toxic, they have to go do it at someone else’s newspaper.

This seems obvious to me but maybe it’s simply a generational thing. Clearly, younger employees—and this is especially true in the media business, where building a personal brand independent of one’s employer is a necessary practice. I first noted the trend four years ago when New York Times staffers revolted against the paper’s policy requiring them to report neutrally on the Trump phenomenon. But there have been multiple instances since. Vox staffers going ballistic when co-founder Matt Yglesias signed an open letter calling for tolerance of free expression. An even bigger revolt by NYT staffers when the paper published a really bad op-ed from a Republican Senator calling for sending in federal troops to put down rioting associated with the George Floyd protests. Not to mention uprisings everywhere from ESPN to Deadspin over “just stick to sports” mandates at outlets ostensibly dedicated to covering sports.

The whole thing is just weird to me. But the working world is different now than it was when I started decades ago. Under-40s have always been able to express themselves publicly in a way that simply wasn’t possible before the late 1990s. Social media has been part of their existence as long as they can remember and it likely just seems natural to them to tweet their opinions on anything and everything the second they pop into their heads. There’s likely only so much the bosses can do to contain that impulse while retaining top talent.

UPDATE (June 10): Bye, Felicia.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    The post would get its just deserves if Weigel were to use the month to find a different position or set up a Substack.

    Yeah the joke is bad, even if many might have a guilty guffaw and retweeting it was bad judgement. But he reconsidered, took the tweet down and apologized, that should have ended it. But it hasn’t and it raises the question as to whether the Post should suspend Sonmez and Del Real for unprofessional behavior.

    7
  2. MarkedMan says:

    It will be interesting to see how this evolves as more and more people in this age bracket assume positions of power. It is easy to think all decisions and positions are easy when you are merely finding fault with what others do. My son was pointing out how some public figure had “changed” and become so toxic. I mentioned what I thought her motivations were and how they stemmed from her long time causes, things she had been praised for in the past. That calling her out for being on the wrong side of this issue (she is, mostly, IMO) is fine, but sending her marching through the streets while everyone shouts “Shame!” is just a power play. I told him that when you had authority and responsibility or even just a public forum you had to try to do he right thing but that people will still belittle your decisions and someone would even if you had decided the opposite. Nothing is as clear cut as when you have no responsibility or public forum, and there are people who get off on disapproval and raising the mob. This is true regardless of their income level, social background, political persuasion or social awareness. Such people are toxic and a constant drain on an organization or a cause.

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  3. @MarkedMan:

    It is easy to think all decisions and positions are easy when you are merely finding fault with what others do.

    My niche observation on this is that “no one knows how to run a university like a third-year assistant professor.” They have all the answers (I know I did) and will happily share them with you, and then assume, once they have imparted their wisdom to the four winds, that somebody else will execute their brilliance. 🙂

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  4. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Hah! And they also are absolutely focused on all the things we should be doing except for, you know, the actual work we do that pays our salary!

    2
  5. Kathy says:

    The only thing more high school than a social media tiff between work colleagues, is gossip about a social media tiff between work colleagues.

    4
  6. Modulo Myself says:

    This isn’t an under-40 thing though. Ilya Shapiro just posted his resignation letter and ranted in the WSJ, and there’s an entire audience of old men eating that up. Who dives headfirst into all of these Woke U repressed me stories? It ain’t zoomers.

    Also, making it sound like Felicia Somnez is a one-woman show on twitter in this episode is pretty misleading. Pretty are ranting at her and she’s responding. Her feed is screenshots of long Glenn Greenwald rants and Greenwald’s feed is screenshots of other rants and their feeds are screenshots of her rants.

    2
  7. DK says:

    Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz lol

    Isn’t this website called Outside the Beltway?

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  8. steve says:

    I would have met with the Sonmez person right away and let her know she would be fired if she kept it up. Fired her if she didnt comply. Weigel’s punishment was more than harsh enough and if she couldn’t accept it she needed to go. I have lots of younger staff and they do occasionally want to tell me how to run things but nothing awful or much different than when I was young and knew everything. Maybe there is something weird about journalism?

    Steve

    4
  9. Jay L Gischer says:

    Let me share an observation Ted Gioia made about the music business because it appears to apply here as well.

    If a publisher demands that their public-facing creative people build their own following via social media, pretty soon those creative people with their own following are going to realize they don’t really need you.

    And yes, Dave Weigel should start a Substack.

    3
  10. gVOR08 says:

    @Jay L Gischer: That. The way to make money as a journalist is to establish a personal brand and a following, and then maybe go Substack. And the way to do that seems to be Twitter.

    I used to read Weigel regularly back when he was sort of the Conservative whisperer. He’d get tight with conservatives and then write about them. Then it seemed like he got too well known for that to work and he’s seemed a bit at sea since. Not sure WAPO would miss him all that much if he pulled a Bari Weiss and quit after failing to get fired.

  11. Modulo Myself says:

    Weigel is an actual journalist, and he seems to enjoy going places and listening to people and reporting on that. Substack is great for opinions on a weekly basis, and supports the top-tier of people who are on it. I.e. it’s great for pundits. But it seems like a lousy model for financing reporting, which takes way more time. A good journalist can’t do a deep-dive piece once a week.

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  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    These kids today. Back in my day I would never have publicly dissed an employer. If I had a legitimate issue with an employer and couldn’t resolve it – say, they weren’t paying me enough – I’d do the mature thing and either perform a little light embezzlement or a burglary. Sure, I could have said Sambo’s was racist and corrupt, but why make an unseemly row when you can just empty the safe? Fukkin Zoomers, man, no initiative.

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  13. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Meh.
    ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
    Inside baseball.
    I’m far more concerned with the WaPo failing to do a credible job of journalism while Democracy slips away.

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  14. solana2021 says:

    The “really bad” op-ed by Tom Cotton was in line with what a majority of Americans supported in a Gallup poll.

  15. CSK says:

    @steve:
    I’ve known more than my share of journalists, and while most of them are great people, the profession does attract those with a tendency to self-absorption and self-dramatization. Sonmez may be one of those.

    1
  16. inhumans99 says:

    James mentions that under 40s, or at least people of a certain age are used to spouting off on twitter, or other form of social media, okay fair enough. However, Dave is what…oh wait, I just learned that I am older than Dave, having been born in 1971, and he was born in 81, so Dave is part of that generation that know that oftentimes an insensitive tweet will get a ton of push back from other under 40s, oftentimes creating a tempest in a teapot. I thought the dude was in his 50s or 60s, at least.

    He may not like that he is part of the generation that piles on someone who retweets a bad joke, but he is and so he should have known better.

    Once upon a time news organizations did not tell their staff, report everything on Joe Blow, just in a neutral manner. Nowadays plenty of news orgs will not ignore the BS that spews from certain individuals out there (not just TFG), and just report it even if they know it is BS. Everyone does this, not just Fox news.

    Instead of news orgs spending so much time providing free campaign advertising for folks like TFG by reporting on every word he says as if it is news, find someone who was able to flee Ukraine and talk to them, generate a human interest story, put it on the the front page, look into regions across the U.S. and if you discover that certain individuals are coming up with novel ways to get folks to pay attention to Global Warming, amplify that story.

    The problem is that if a month from now TFG posts a comment on social media mentioning for the 11th thousandth time that the election was stolen from him (on parler, or whatever he is using nowadays), the post will put up a story about this post on the front page, that is pretty pathetic.

    David W could indeed be a wonderful reporter, and yes, the pile on him for his retweet sounds like it is making others who are pointing out how unprofessional this was of David to do, come off as sounding just as unprofessional as they profess David to be, but this story lays bare that “professionals” like David are nowhere near being above the baser impulses folks like David and other establishment reporters decry when it comes to folks of a certain age.

    Forevermore, folks will look at David as no better than than Joe Schmoe94 on twitter who retweets a bad take on a story thinking everyone will also agree with his hot-take on the tweet/story re-tweet.

    I guess everyone likes to think they are above those young-uns with their social media and constants tweets, and inability to take a joke, and being SJWs, but are we really?

    Is David trying to get his own form of “justice” for folks whose jokes end up on a tweet and are not appreciated as the knee-slappingly funny joke that they believe it is? What was his end-goal by retweeting this joke? As a reporter he should be asking himself if what he is about to post/re-tweet passes the five Ws test, or something like that.

  17. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @DK: The name of the site has been an inside joke for a long time.
    […]

    It’s also not clear from the reporting I’ve seen what time of day/night or state of sobriety Weigel was in when he retweeted the joke.

    Don’t care. People who are impaired need to become used to the idea that they shouldn’t operate any device more complex than a television or a pillow. Don’t know that? [expletive, deleted] ’em.

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  18. Gustopher says:

    I’ve had minor disagreements with employers, including my current one, over personnel and policy matters. It would simply never have occurred to me to take them public—whether to Twitter, OTB, or some other venue—while still working there. It’s unprofessional.

    Your employers are pleased by your obedience.

    Ok, seriously though, when shit like this happens, it is almost always because management isn’t being responsive to internal complaints. Either the person making the complaints is a loon and should have been eased out, or management is all about protecting the favorites. More often the latter.

    This wasn’t the first time Weigel did something like this. He gets a kick out of trolling, and it bites him on the ass from time to time. Mix that with poor self-control, and you have a recipe for problems. And resentment from other staffers.

    Meanwhile, this woman is likely too tightly wound.

    When idiots collide, etc.

    Anyway, now he gets a month off without pay, which seems like a lot, but he’s been an asshole this way before, so I’ll assume this was a punishment for continuing to be an asshole after being warned*.

    And the anti-cancel-culture brigade is out in force because a woman dared speak up. (Whether the woman was right or wrong is pretty much irrelevant to most of them, lost in “she can’t take a joke”)

    ——
    *: Matt Yglesias, who is basically a professional asshole, might seem like a model to follow — start a substack, be your own boss, etc., but Yglesias is a much more careful asshole, pulling off a rather remarkable balancing act.

    The easier route for the less skilled asshole is to start to go right-wing, and follow Matt Tiabbi.

    1
  19. Gustopher says:

    @inhumans99:

    The problem is that if a month from now TFG posts a comment on social media mentioning for the 11th thousandth time that the election was stolen from him (on parler, or whatever he is using nowadays), the post will put up a story about this post on the front page, that is pretty pathetic.

    Given the number of times Trump has said exactly this in the past six months, and the number of times it has ended up on the front page of WaPo, this is demonstrably false.

    1
  20. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @solana2021:
    Tom Cotton is the stolen valor guy, right?

    1
  21. CSK says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:
    Cotton did graduate from Ranger school, but he didn’t serve as a Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    1
  22. inhumans99 says:

    @Gustopher:

    Considering I have a digital subscription to the Post, it shows you how often I go the Post’s website as that would have proved what I just said in this thread false.

    Also, if I had paused for a moment before deciding to use TFG in my post, I would have realized I picked a bad example. I am aware that even Fox news cuts away from Trump if he starts blathering on about stolen elections during an interview or something like that.

  23. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    Weigel is an actual journalist, and he seems to enjoy going places and listening to people and reporting on that. Substack is great for opinions on a weekly basis, and supports the top-tier of people who are on it. I.e. it’s great for pundits. But it seems like a lousy model for financing reporting, which takes way more time. A good journalist can’t do a deep-dive piece once a week.

    I think this is a good point. And it follows that his employer should not be on his case about developing a Twitter following. And it also follows that he needs to stay professional in his Tweets.

    I’ve heard actors refer to this as “opacity”. They keep their private life private so it won’t interfere with their work. There are other schools of thought, though.

  24. James Joyner says:

    @DK: @Just the ignint cracker: The site name was always something tongue-in-cheek. As noted on the About page,

    The site’s moniker was both descriptive and ironic: James had moved from Troy, Alabama to the Washington, D.C. exurbs of Dulles, Virginia to take a job in the publishing industry five months earlier. So, an author with a decidedly outside-the-Beltway mindset was now living in very close proximity to said Beltway.

    That was 19-1/2 years ago and I’ve been living the in the DC suburbs the whole time. My views are far more out of sync with Troy, Alabama now than they were then. Not because I’ve gone native (I could do the jobs I’ve had here anywhere, really) but because writing about and debating politics have led to natural evolution over that long period.

    That said, I was interested in media issues from the earliest days of the site and Weigel got his start as a blogger, so it’s a bit of inside baseball for me.

    1
  25. HarvardLaw92 says:

    It would appear that management is in charge. They fired Sonmez.